Integrate the youth voice in science policy conferences

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Speed read

  • Youths, age 18-30, still remain on the margins of participation in conferences
  • Skill-building and mentoring opportunities can cure marginal youth participation
  • Youth involvement must be built into various aspects of conference programming

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This time last year, I was only just starting to understand the participation challenges that young people across the world face when attending large science policy conferences.
On the surface, it seems progress has been made, with many commitments for youth representation in committees and sessions. Yet, when you look below the surface, the youth (defined as 18-30 years old) still often remain on the margins of participation in these conferences.
One of the reasons is that young people are not provided with sufficient communication skill-building opportunities to effectively contribute to discussions and to become better professionals.
Another possible reason is that the issues discussed at large science policy conferences are often not the ones that youth would be regularly exposed to or are widely discussed and debated among them.
To try changing these paradigms, I teamed up with two other inspiring young people — Marina Cherbonnier from the Young Professionals for Agricultural Development and Sarah Dickson-Hoyle from the International Forestry Students Association. Marina and I had started a special youth session at the first Global Landscapes Forum in Warsaw in December 2013, and then Sarah joined us to help run a special youth session at the Forests Asia Summit in Jakarta in May 2014.
Challenges facing youth participation
We three have learned some key lessons along the way. [1]
First, having a youth session at your conference doesn’t mean you’ve ticked the youth box. There are fears that relegating youth to a separate session condemns them to continued marginalisation unless appropriate steps are taken to integrate them into the rest of the conference programme. This is not an argument against youth sessions, which are important to ensure that the youth perspective is formally represented. What we need is to push for more young professionals and early career scientists as panellists and panel organisers, particularly for topics where youth issues are of key relevance such as education and employment.

Second, youth sessions aren’t just for young people. While young people often have innovative and creative ideas, we believe it will be difficult to mainstream this thinking if older professionals do not support and operationalise these ideas. Youth sessions should bring the youth and senior professionals together to link goals and action statements. Older people could benefit from youth sessions that can provide fresh perspectives and new ways of explaining ideas.
Third, don’t just give young people a space to share their ideas — they need skill-building, networking and mentoring opportunities too. We still see many young people afraid to take the microphone or unable to clearly articulate their ideas to a professional audience. While large international conferences offer prolific opportunities for networking with other organisations, young people are often intimidated by these large networking scenarios. We need to give them the confidence and skills to effectively contribute to these discussions. As one youth noted, it would be great to link young participants to established people in relevant fields who could act as their mentors.
Fourth, give us enough time. Don’t schedule the youth session at the end of the day because it is not considered as important as a high-level panel. We need conference organisers who aren’t afraid to rise above institutional politics and will give time and space for young people to contribute and to learn. You never know, the youth session may turn out to be the most dynamic and interesting, with delegates praising its innovative approaches for months to come.

Fifth, don’t forget to plan what happens after the session. We often get so caught up in the logistics of organising and preparing sessions that we don’t put enough thought into how to implement recommendations. This is tough as funding often just covers single events. But we should be asking the “what next” questions early on in the conference planning process and ensuring these points are reflected in our concept notes and fund-raising efforts.
Building on lessons learned
We’re now in the midst of organising our next youth project for the 2014 Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) in Peru in December and we’re pleased to say that we have been able to build on lessons learned to make sure we can deliver even better youth activities.
The forum organisers have committed to youth involvement in various aspects of the GLF programme: (1) convening a dedicated youth session where over 200 young people will be able to share their perspectives on the conference themes, (2) making age a selection criterion for speakers, and (3) encouraging youth facilitators. [2]
For the first time, we’ll be running a blended “master class” series that aims to offer mentoring and capacity-building opportunities to a wide range of young people and setting tasks to complete during the conference. Key learning points include how to contribute to a discussion, how to pitch an idea, how to facilitate a discussion, and what are landscape approaches [a broad framework that integrates agriculture, forestry and other land uses into a sustainable development agenda].
We’re hoping that these efforts will lead to increased youth awareness about landscape issues and how these relate to climate change and sustainable development; greater engagement between older professionals and youth, and better understanding of youth issues among older professionals attending the conference; more youths taking leadership roles in conference sessions and in future meetings; and increased cooperation among youth organisations in the field of landscape and climate change.
If we manage to achieve even some of these aims, it will surely put us in good stead to ensure that 2015 — the year of action on climate change and sustainable development — will have an army of well-equipped, confident youth leaders at the helm.
Do you agree with these tips? Do you have other ideas in mind? Share with us in the comments section!
Michelle Kovacevic is a science communicator and educator with a strong interest in how the ideas and perspectives of early career professionals are represented in science policy forums. Get in touch with her @kovamic.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net’s South-East Asia & Pacific desk


[1] M. Kovacevic, M. Cherbonnier, S. Dickson-Hoyle Youth in Southeast Asia’s Forests: Special session at the Forests Asia Summit (Center for International Forestry Research, 5 May 2014)
[2] Global Landscapes Forum (GLF) What is the youth session at the 2014 Global Landscapes Forum? (GLF, 2014)